Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On Listening

The Author's Files now takes a break from a series of comic book reviews to share the following encomium/maxim essay, written in the classical style.  I was motivated to write an essay on this topic because I think it's undervalued in today's society, especially among teenagers.

A wise woman once said, “The secret to talking is listening.”  To master the art of beautiful speaking, one must acquire an attentive ear as well as an eloquent tongue, for the skill of locution requires one to hear the words of others.  The benefits of listening are numerous and the detriments of neglecting it abundant.  The man who listens to others will have the prized ability to endear his friends and understand his enemies, but he who shuns the wisdom of listening will only offend his friends and foes, gaining neither knowledge nor respect.

The man who listens has several advantages over the man who does not.  On the simplest level, the attentive man has a much more intimate connection to his friends than the man who doesn’t listen; this is evident because humans desire companions who can articulate their own beliefs but also hear opinions contrary to those they hold.  The most agreeable individuals open their ears to conflicting mindsets and worldviews, even those with which they disagree.  Likewise, good friends not only share experiences from their own lives but more importantly commit to hear stories they have not heard; those joined in true friendship must be willing to listen before they speak.  Yet there is a greater value to listening than mere popularity: knowledge.  In the act of listening to his adversaries, the attentive man acquires a better comprehension of their stance and all its flaws, and thus simplifies his burden to refute their arguments.  An old maxim counsels people to keep their friends close but their enemies closer, and the wise man, by allowing his enemies to explain the rationales for their positions, keeps them far closer in his mind than he would if he were to ignore their false teachings.

The man who fails to listen to others invokes enmity and embraces ignorance.  Through his adverse habit of interrupting and talking over others, he will frustrate his friends and distance his foes even further.  He who interrupts the conversations of others exposes his blatant disinterest in their concerns and suggests that his thoughts are more important than anyone else’s.  This disposition is perceived by all as rude and off-putting; thus, people are less likely to befriend a man who is unwilling to listen to them.  Furthermore, the man who despises listening is more prone to ignorance than his fellows, for by refusing to hear the arguments of his opponents, he handicaps his ability to rebut them.  In contrast, the man who has lent his ears to both sides of a given issue is better equipped to argue against either of them.

In the same way that good generals look to history for the best strategy to seize victory instead of relying on their own intuition for success, so too does the man who listens obtain more wisdom than the man who brashly talks over others.  For he who has studied the mistakes made throughout history is less likely to repeat them, and he who notes the words of his friends can acquire twice the knowledge he’d otherwise possess.

There are many current examples and political figures one can draw upon to demonstrate the wisdom of listening.  Mike Rowe, host of the popular television show Dirty Jobs, knows that an attentive ear is more valuable than an active mouth.  Although Rowe is the only man on the show whose name is nationally recognized, he acts mainly as an observer while allowing the American workers he meets to do most of the talking.  In this way, he learns more about the dirty careers central to his program and conveys more information to his audience.  The 4th century saint, Basil of Caesarea, also deemed it wise to hear voices of different ideological leanings.  In his address to young men on the right use of Greek literature, he recommended that Christians read the myths of the pagans as long as they kept their souls oriented in the right direction, towards God.  In contrast to these two figures, talk radio is populated with rude and intolerant people who have no intention of hearing viewpoints different from their own.  One example of this set is Clyde Lewis, the host of a nationally syndicated radio program called Ground Zero.  One October night, Lewis was crafting a somewhat paranoid case for stopping the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (or drones) in military operations; he expressed his opinion by employing faulty logical reasoning and mentioning fairly suspect evidence that drones are computer-operated and kill 3 times as many civilians as militants.  His claims went mostly undisputed for the first half hour, but when 2 callers phoned in to deconstruct his arguments, Lewis erupted into an uncontrolled furor, yelling over his guests and denying them any opportunity to make their points.  In so doing, Lewis not only lost a chance to learn the truth about drones, but also harmed his reputation in the eye of his listeners, many of whom will never tune into his program again.  One can also see the prudence of listening in recent presidential debates.  In the first presidential debate of 2012, Mitt Romney surpassed Barack Obama in persuasiveness and delivery partly because he paid attention to the incumbent’s statements and responded to all of them directly.  Obama however just reiterated the views he expressed formerly whenever he spoke, never refuting Romney’s points.  If he had listened closer to the arguments Romney made, Obama might not have lost so much ground in the polls after the debate.  But if Obama showed an abject ineptitude for listening, his running mate Joe Biden displayed an complete aversion to it.  When debating Paul Ryan, Biden closed his ears to the words of his opponent, laughing openly at them and deriding them as “malarkey” and a “bunch of stuff”.  Even more egregiously, the cranky old man went out of his way to interrupt Ryan at every possible moment, 82 times in total, instead of listening and patiently waiting for his turn to speak.  As a result, Bite-Me lowered his standing even further in the public eye, an impressive feat given his past blunders, and came away as the clear loser of the debate in gentlemanly conduct.

Thus we see that it is better to give attention than to receive it, for wisdom is derived from listening, not speaking; but men who interrupt and speak over their associates draw only irritation and resentment.

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